Issiaka Ouattara, from rebel chief to controversial general
Issiaka Ouattara, known as Wattao, was probably the most notorious member of the Ivorian military. He died at the age of 53 on Sunday in New York and had an extraordinary career, intimately linked to the tumultuous political history of his country. Part one of a two-part series.
April 11, 2011. Laurent Gbagbo has just been arrested. In a room of the Hotel du Golf, headquarters of Gbagbo’s worst enemy, Alassane Ouattara, the latter is sweaty, visibly exhausted. The cameras are rolling, flashes go off. In the frame, we also see one of the warlords most hated by the Gbagbo camp approaching Ouattara and helping him put on a shirt. The images go around the world. That day, Issiaka Ouattara won the respect of many of his namesake’s supporters, and the man nicknamed “Wattao” became an almost omnipresent media figure.
This Koulango from a poor family in Doropo, in the north-east of the country, who dropped out of school aged 12 or 13, took his first steps into military life at the army garage in Abidjan, where he started work at the age of 19. Two years later, to his dismay, he returned to civilian life. In 1990, together with other trainees who, like him, were not integrated into the army, he organised a mutiny.
A furious President Félix Houphouët-Boigny dismissed his chief of staff, Brigadier General Félix Ory, and appointed a certain Robert Gueï in his place. The group of mutineers was integrated into the ranks of the army. For Issiaka Ouattara, it was his first rebellion, and his first success.
A second-class soldier assigned to mechanical work, this hulking, 1.90m tall fellow joined the Société Omnisports de l’Armée (SOA) as a judoka. “To calm my fighting temperament,” he confided, each time he recalled, with pride, this period of his life.
In 1992, he finished runner-up in the African judo championship in Harare, Zimbabwe. In the army, the young man was already a star, under the nickname given to him by his Japanese sports instructor: “Wattao”.
Brutal, untrained, ambitious, the soldiers of Gueï’s close guard modelled themselves on militias with evocative names: Red Brigade, Camora, etc.
At Christmas 1999, he and Gueï crossed paths again, thanks to a new mutiny. This time, Staff Sergeant Ibrahim Coulibaly – known as IB – was at the helm. The “jeunes gens”, as they called themselves, overthrew Henri Konan Bédié of the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and Gueï seized power.
Gueï appointed “IB” as head of his security. And the latter brought in Wattao, along with most of the future warlords of Guillaume Soro’s rebellion. Brutal, untrained, ambitious, the soldiers of Gueï’s close guard modelled themselves on militias with evocative names: Red Brigade, Camora, etc..
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A giant with feet of clay
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Rivalries soon erupted, as the political ambitions of their boss took shape and put him, too, in contest with career politicians such as Alassane Ouattara, then president of the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR).
Exile and coup d’état
In September 2000, accused of plotting a coup d’état against Gueï, Wattao was arrested and imprisoned. “I was humiliated and tortured in the munitions depot at Akouédo camp. Many of our comrades died at that time, and I still have physical scars. I promised myself that no one would ever mess with my life again,” he told Jeune Afrique in February 2017.
I promised myself that no one would ever mess with my life again”
Freed during the fighting between Gueï’s praetorian guard and elements of the army loyal to Gbagbo, who had been elected in October 2000, Wattao – then suspected of being an agent of Ouattara’s RDF – took the path of exile.
Two years later, he returned to Abidjan. On 19 September 2002, with “IB” in charge, the rebels tried and failed to take power. The coup attempt against Gbagbo was deadly. Emile Boga Doudou, then minister of the interior, was assassinated by the putschists, along with senior officers close to him. Some were killed with rocket launchers.
Gueï and members of his family, including his wife, as well as part of his close guard, were killed by loyalist soldiers.
In part two: post-electoral crisis, a fall from grace and reclaiming his reputation.